Peeling the layers:  What I learned from Scott Dikkers, co-founder of The Onion, about publishing


“Ready, fire, aim.”  Don’t be a perfectionist.  My problem is that I spend way more time writing than I do editing, so my project this summer will be to finalize the edits on my novel, Because of Mindy Wiley (  This will mark my seventh time editing it. I’ve put off finishing it for years–partly because I wanted to wait till I had a Master’s in English, but also because every time I went back to my book, it was like reconnecting with an old friend.  Since I never read anything I write (once it’s in print anyway), I think a part of me feared parting with it forever.

Publishing e-books for Kindle on Amazon is worth it.  The large publishing houses take 70% in royalties while Amazon takes only 7%.  Of course, with self-publishing, you have to do your own marketing, but all you need for that is an internet connection and an online presence, and I’ve already been branding myself for years (it’s the whole reason I started a blog)

Don’t skimp on the cover.  If you’re not familiar with InDesign, you’ll want to hire a designer to create your cover and lay out your book.  (Now I wish I had taken the time to learn how to lay out the newspaper while I was on The Corsair.) I will either have to wait till I get my degree in graphic design or wait till I can cobble together the money to get my book professionally done–whichever comes first.  Of course, there’s always Kickstarter.

Don’t spend the money getting your manuscript professionally edited.  I had seriously considered doing this through Writer’s Digest or inquiring my professor friends to see how much they would charge.  Dikkers said he caught all his mistakes just by reading his book aloud–only 225,000 words to go!

If you want people to notice your book, you need to have popular keywords in your book’s description (and don’t forget to test those keywords).  It’s basically the same principle as a hashtag. You get seven of them, so use them wisely (and remember that each word can be more than one).

Send press releases of your book to blogs.  There are many online tutorials that show you how to write in this medium.  I’ve thought about writing a mock press release as a blog feature.

There needs to be “reader magnet” in the book, such as a free first chapter, novelette, novella–basically, a hook to get your reader to buy your next book.  I already have visions of a prequel dancing in my head.

My book goals:

⦁ To sell enough copies to not only get on the New York Times Bestseller List but also enable me to fund a recurring creative writing scholarship at my alma mater.

⦁ To be turned into a TV-series for HBO.

⦁ And finally, the best of all:  For my name (or the title of my book) to be the answer to a “Jeopardy” question (or a “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle).



Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Publications I Submit To


There are many markets for the personal essay (, for no one can tell the story you have lived & from your unique perspective. They are the easiest to write because they require little research.

Greeting cards are a fun way for poets to make real money. The Blue Mountain Arts greeting card company is one of them. Note: Having a worksheet of all the different greetings helps me generate more content.

If you need help getting started, try submitting to a publication with a prompt.

You don’t have to agree with a publication’s vision to submit to them. You just need to be interested in the topic or theme.

If you find yourself channeling your inner Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck, submit to “The Lighter Side” section of The Saturday Evening Post.

Writer’s Digest offers several free ways to get published in their magazine. The 5-Minute Memoirs is one of them.

“Chicken Soup for the Soul” is all about writing what one knows, with calls for submissions that relate to most people. That said, don’t get discouraged: You will receive no notification upon reception, only upon acceptance.



Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Creative Writing Prompts


If you’re stuck, write about writing. A book may be static, but our perceptions are dynamic.

A piece of literature can have many incarnations. When writing such a work, always cite exact quotes, & what work it is based on. I did this with a very interesting short story.

Just as there are numerous genres in which to categorize a story, there are many formats in which to write them. Experiment with some of these lesser-utilized ones.

Write a response to another poem, & watch it take on a life of its own.

Have fun with the absurd. Have you heard of fractured fairy tales? How about a compound fractured fairy tale?

You can go for a “multiple ekphrastic”—using 3 (or more) paintings as inspiration for a narrative poem/prose. I married that idea with Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-so” type stories.


Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths


When you’re a writer, no experience is ever wasted.

Grit & realism are wonderful qualities, but an occasional spark of humanity is still needed to keep the fire going in the reader. You must give the reader something to live, or read, for.

In every story, there is a glimmer of the one that wrote it.

There’s a nugget of fiction to be mined from every grain of truth.

It’s perfectly okay to copy someone else’s style until you find your own. After all, children learn first by imitation.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery can lead to plagiarism; inspiration will not.
The more you know, the more you can write about.

How a poem sounds when read aloud is as important as how it looks on the page. Poetry can be both an auditory & visual experience.

Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but poetry is the door. Strip away the fictitious veneer, & you will expose the fine patina of one’s core.

If you don’t like a certain writer’s stories, don’t let that stop you from reading their books on writing.

If you don’t take the time to read, you will be an empty vessel. Reading isn’t just great exercise for the imagination, but it helps with mechanics (i.e. how words should be spelled).

A professionally-published piece is worth about a hundred million retweets.


Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Creative Writing Prompts


If you’ve run out of ideas based on your own life (hopefully a temporary thing), borrow from the lives of others. (Just be sure to change the names of the innocent & especially the not-so-innocent.)

Imagine how different your world would be if one thing (or even a letter of the alphabet) was taken away.

Write a story about someone who is at odds with their environment. (Think “The Beverly Hillbillies.”)

How would the world be different if electronic communication was limited to those around us?

Don’t want to write your own memoir? Write someone else’s. (Just make sure it’s labeled as fiction; first-person P.O.V. & present tense preferred.)

What would life be like if the Internet didn’t exist? Write a story (or an essay) about something (i.e. an invention) we take for granted.

Instead of “What’s in your wallet?”, try “What’s in your purse?” Just as bumper stickers can tell you a lot about a person, so can the contents of what you carry with you. Look in your own purse (I don’t advise looking in someone else’s, so you’ll have to use your imaginations there), & write a story (or memoir) of its owner by filling in the blanks.


Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Character Matters


Jezebel wasn’t always a prostitute, Mary wasn’t always the mother of God, & Santa has a life beyond Christmas.

We all transform under the right (or wrong) conditions. Carbon turns to diamonds, water turns to ice, trees turn to paper. A transformative character is more interesting than one who is impervious to change.

Never overly describe a character. Include a few, pertinent details, then allow the readers to use their imaginations to fill in the rest, because nothing slows a story’s momentum than for readers to have to laboriously build a character in their mind according to the writer’s exact specifications.

It’s fine to write a fiction book with an agenda in mind, but never be more passionate about the agenda than the characters.

Authors are no longer limited to one character’s perception when they write from the first-person point-of-view. You can pull a “Picoult” (i.e. Jodi Picoult) with each chapter being told from a different person’s P.O.V. Just make sure the characters you use to tell the stories are equally compelling.

Draw up character profiles, even for short stories. A thoughtful reader will notice if one of your characters has blue eyes at the beginning of the story, & brown eyes at the end.

Every character has habits, or quirks, that make them memorable. The same goes for dialect & certain expressions they use.


Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths


The basics of journalism (the 5 W’s & 1 H) apply to fiction, as well. If we don’t know who, we won’t care about the rest.

Write long, & then cut it down. It’s easier to have plenty of material to work with than it is to have to “pad something out” to reach the word count threshold.

It is better to take the time to write a new story than to butcher an existing one to fit in a certain word count.

Your characters don’t have to be realistic, if they are representations of real ideals (such as in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead).

Writing an analysis of your short story can help improve succeeding drafts, enriching it with symbolism (& making sure all the elements make sense).

Writing is an art, editing, a science.

You will learn more from one character in real life than you will in 140 on Twitter.

If you can’t remember the characters’ names in a book, it wasn’t a very good book.

Plot-based books often get read once whereas character-driven novels get read again & again. Character matters.

A minor character can have a significant impact on a major one.

You don’t have to write linearly. If you have a scene in mind that you’d like to go ahead & write, do so. It doesn’t matter how you put the puzzle together, only that it makes sense when it’s finished.

Don’t self-publish until you’ve had your manuscript professionally-edited. Just. Don’t.